I’ve just been writing a short essay about that old Andres Serrano controversy for school. What a year 1989 was, eh? Christians freaked out and started gutting the NEA, the Berlin Wall fell, Emily and I were born…
Anyway, the paper is about how the Christofascists’ reaction to Serrano reveals how disconnected their worldview is from the alleged principles of their own religion. Partly slipped below the fold, for length reasons.
Andres Serrano’s Work As Religious Expression:
The Hypocrisy of Conservative Christianity
In the 1980s, photographer Andres Serrano began a body of work “obsessed with Church symbolism” (Meyer 29). His images featured Christian icons and bodily fluids, the most provocative of them Piss Christ — a photograph of a cheap crucifix “submerged in a beaker of the artist’s urine” (Garvey 190). The photos were featured in a 1989 exhibition, which was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (Garvey 189). The response to Serrano’s work was explosive, with conservative Christian groups so outraged that Congress altered the very mechanics of the NEA in response.
Serrano’s work has been called blasphemy (Garvey 191), and dismissed as “taunting the American people” (qtd. in Garvey, 191). Rather than revealing anything about the character of Serrano’s photographs, however, these epithets reflect instead the sorry state of Christianity in the United States today. Though his images are shocking, consideration of his intentions makes it plain that Serrano was trying to engage with Christianity — to criticize, certainly, but also to understand, as part of his own spiritual path. The response to this — to Serrano’s attempts to relate to religion and to God — demonstrates how divorced from its own purported core principles Christian fundamentalism is.
Among the loudest objectors was Don Wildmon, the head of the American Family Association (Garvey 190). The AFA exists, allegedly, to ensure “the promulgation of the Judaic-Christian ethic in America” (qtd. in Garvey, 190). Despite the AFA’s response, though, Serrano’s work follows in the direct line of Judaic tradition. “Israel” is a name meaning “one who struggles with God” — when Serrano explains Piss Christ with the statement that it stems from “unresolved feelings about [his] own Catholic upbringing,” helping him to “personalize [his] relationship with God” (qtd. in Meyer 29), what is he doing but struggling in the word’s best sense? In Serrano’s case, the constant quest to better know God has produced results that some find ugly and offensive — yet parts of the quest they remain. If Christians wish to call themselves defenders of the Judaic tradition, they will need to acknowledge that the children of Israel are called, by their very name, to strive with God, and further that that grappling is, in and of itself, a religious good. The personal God cannot exist if individual believers are not permitted to seek and to struggle with her.
Serrano does use his art as one vehicle for his struggling. He has said that he considers art “a moral and spiritual obligation that . . . speaks directly to the soul” (qtd. in Meyer 29). So Serrano’s art truly is his religious expression, no more or less authentic than that of any self-identified evangelical. The fact that it is shocking and outside of the mainstream does not make it less defensible, nor less religious — the most enduringly powerful works in both Judaism and Christianity are those that were antithetical to the status quo of their day. All the prophets were radical activists; Serrano’s work has been identified as a form of “prophetic expression” (Meyer 19) in that it, like the messages of the Biblical prophets, constitutes, in part, a call for “a moral reexamination of cultural constructs” (Meyer 20). In every area of the Judeo-Christian legacy, the prophets — and their challenges to the dominant paradigms — are held in high esteem; this leads, logically, to the conclusion that disagreeing with the prevailing wisdom is not necessarily wrong. When the status quo endorses injustice and exploitation, objecting to it is a moral obligation.
The best loved, and perhaps also the most radical, of all the prophets is, of course, Jesus Christ. His ideas were groundbreaking in large part because they stood in bold opposition to the religious hierarchy of the day — a group of powerful men who adhered strictly to the literal words of their holy book, and who were well known for their opinion that they were more pious than everyone else. That is, they were a self-proclaimed “Moral Minority” (Garvey 190) — just as conservative Christians are today.
The obligation to struggle with God is one of the most important ideas in Judaism. In Protestantism, the personal, individual connection to God is a foundational belief. Any strain of Protestant Christianity that does not maintain these values — evangelicalism, for example — is profoundly disconnected from its own supposed values, from rhetoric, from it’s own holy texts, and from its own messiah.
Garvey, John H. “Black And White Images.” Law and Contemporary Problems 56.4 (1993): 190-215
Meyer, Jerry D. “Profane and Sacred: Religious Imagery and Prophetic Expression in Postmodern Art.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65.1 (1997): 19-46